I’ve been keeping this blog for over two years now and realized that I’ve never once written about the Peace Corps. This is strange, seeing as how at one time that’s all I thought about doing once I graduated from college. For anyone not familiar with the organization, the Peace Corps is an American volunteer program run by the United States government. Its stated mission includes three general goals-providing technical assistance, helping people outside the United States to understand American culture, and helping Americans to understand the culture of other countries. The work that volunteers do is generally related to areas of social and economic development, with assignments lasting for a period of two years after three months of training. The program was established by an Executive Order by President John F. Kennedy on March 1, 1961 and has been in operation ever since. The Peace Corps has volunteers working all over the world, although the countries where volunteers serve have changed over the years. Twenty to thirty years ago many volunteers served in Eastern Europe, in nations that had recently become free of Soviet rule. However, today countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic are considerably more prosperous compared to during the 1970s and 1980s, so volunteers are no longer needed. There have also been instances in which Peace Corps operations in certain countries have been shut down due to issues of instability. While some nations have reinstated volunteers once the instability has abated (for some countries this has happened multiple times), others such as Afghanistan have never seen a return of the Peace Corps.
When we got Internet access at my parents’ house back in the late 1990s, I would spend droves of time on the Peace Corps’ website, reading testimonials from former volunteers, exploring countries and regions volunteers served in, and becoming more and more geographically sound when discovering the names of new nations, places that certainly would never have been taught as part of the American secondary school curriculum-Moldova and Kiribati, for example.
A family friend who I’ve know since I was an infant served in the Peace Corps in Afghanistan in the 1960s, working as English teacher. This was obviously long before the war between the Taliban and the American forces and even before the country’s guerrilla fighters, the Mujahedeen, battled the Soviet Army during that decade long war in the 1980s. (The Peace Corps ceased operations in Afghanistan in 1978.) He knew an Afghanistan that was poverty stricken but, at least during the time he was there, seemed on the cusp of a more prosperous future. Sadly that potential has never come to fruition. When the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two monumental statues of standing Buddha carved into the side of a cliff that dated from the 6th century, he was saddened, not to mention by every other horrific act that has taken place in a country whose people he remembers fondly. The Peace Corps allowed him to become part of a nation and its culture that in today’s world, excluding those serving in the military in an entirely different capacity, most people will never know. Today Americans are informed about the horrifying acts of violence being reported in the media.
My semester abroad in Costa Rica showed me that the Peace Corps probably wasn’t for me. Although there exists a Four Seasons Resort and other “first world” amenities, it is, still, after all, a developing nation. Until I spent those three months there I had never roughed it so much in my life. When living with my first host family in the urban jungle capital of San Jose, cockroaches were daily visitors-in the kitchen, my bedroom, even once when I was showering. (I still remember becoming slightly crazed after seeing one on the shower floor and being forced to use my shampoo bottle to kill it.) One day while eating in the kitchen a cockroach scampered in. My host mom promptly stomped on it and simply kicked it under the sink. Having never seen a cockroach before, this thoroughly disgusted me, as did the bug as a whole.
For the whole first month that I lived with my first host family, I never had a hot shower. While one may think well, that’s not so bad since Costa Rica is a tropical nation, I lived in the Central Valley, a section of the country that enjoys temperate weather year round (i.e. daily highs in the 70s with no humidity) and unfortunately cold temperatures in the evenings (around 50 degrees F). Therefore an ice cold shower when it was 55 degrees outside was simply terrible. When I went on an organized excursion to Chira Island, a small land mass located in the Gulf of Nicoya, I stayed the night at a lodge that was home to literally, mutant looking grasshoppers. A friend of mine who completed her internship in neighboring Nicaragua told me that her host family’s house had no indoor plumbing (yes, you guessed it-a 21st century outhouse). At night if she needed to use the facilities, she had to take a flashlight with her as electricity was also scant once the sun went down. She recounted one evening how she entered the outhouse and saw nothing but a cascade of cockroaches lining the interior. While she was a pretty tough person, she said the experience absolutely horrified her (I was horrified just hearing it). So between my aversion to insects (large and small) and my desire for indoor plumbing and hot showers (well, at least if living in a non-tropical climate), I realized that I was probably not a good fit for the Peace Corps since I know that in many areas where volunteers are placed, these are the norms. While many former Peace Corps volunteers have written personal accounts of their experiences, one I would highly recommend reading is Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by Sarah Erdman, who served in the West African nation of Ivory Coast.
In spite of my apprehensions I still desperately wanted to volunteer abroad somewhere after college, and thankfully I found a program that allowed me to do that. It was one where I didn’t have to give up all of my first world luxuries, even if at times, they didn’t work (Internet access was usually intermittent and once there was a power outage that lasted three days, resulting in all of my refrigerated food spoiling). I volunteered at an orphanage in Cuernavaca, one of Mexico’s largest cities. Having been there it afforded me the opportunity to learn about the Mexican culture through my daily interactions with the office staff (all of whom were Mexican) and also my interaction with the orphanage’s children. Although I didn’t cultivate many friendships with Mexicans outside of those affiliated with the orphanage, I always chatted with the gentleman who owned the little fruit stand that I frequented. Whenever I stopped there he always told me whether or not he had any platanos (plantains), since on my first visit there I had inquired about them. Yes, I volunteered in a developing country but I still went to Wal-Mart for my groceries and sent emails to my family and friends. I still even went to the movies, even though I know it was a luxury that not many local residents could partake of.
The Peace Corps is not for everyone. Its marketing slogan has always been “the toughest job you’ll ever love” and I believe it. Most people who volunteer do away with items that are considered common and normal in the developed world and travel to places where the same things are considered luxuries. But I’m sure through the people they meet, the experiences they have, and the long lasting impact on both them and the nation they’re serving, it’s an opportunity they’ll never forget. And last but not least, from a traveling standpoint, (since this is primarily a travel blog after all) there is probably no more fulfilling travel adventure than that.